The Importance of Trade Unions in Combating Sexual Harassment and the Importance of Women in Trade Unions

last updated September 20, 2005

Trade unions have an important role to play in sexual harassment policies in the workplace.  Many trade unions around the world have already made great progress in these issues and continue to do so.


For a discussion of the importance of trade unions in sexual discrimination issues, see International Labour Organization (ILO), “The Role of Trade Unions in Promoting Gender Equality, Gender Promotion Programme;”

While sexual harassment is not only a women’s issue, many trade unions have strengthened their struggle against sexual harassment by increasing the number of women in the trade unions or by creating separate women’s sections.  The International Labour Organization (ILO) has noted that on their website,, that:

In spite of their increasing participation in the labour force, women account for only about a third of global trade union membership and represent one per cent of the decision-making bodies of unions. . . . The main reasons revealed by [a] survey are that, on the one hand, women do not understand how unions can benefit them, and, on the other hand, unions are often not sensitive to the needs of women workers or their entrenched rules and structures are not conducive to women's participation and leadership. 

For information in general on how to organize women into trade unions, see Union Network International, "Organizing Women into Trade Unions”; in English: (also available in other languages).

For an example of women successfully organizing, see Union Network International, “Impressive success of young women in mobilising their colleagues in call centres in Brazil,” July 17, 2003; (union women successfully recruited other women into the union); and Jessica DuLong, “Women at Work: These labor leaders are changing the face of the movement, reflecting the concerns of a changing membership,” Newsday, September 1, 2002, (women trade union activists successfully negotiated for issues important to them).

An example of unions' effectiveness in sexual harassment issues comes from students. After seventeen years of effort, student employees in the University of California system unionized successfully and negotiated their first contract.  Some of the issues in their negotiated contract were provisions against sexual harassment. The students had to fight for years in order for the university system to recognize their right to collectively bargain.  Finally, as stated on, the administration recognized those rights after the student employees at eight campuses held a six-day strike.